Raiders v Dragons
One of these team’s under-the-pump coaches will be breathing a huge sigh of relief at fulltime given the respective dismal form of the Raiders and Dragons over the opening fortnight of the 2013 season, with neither unit leaving fans or training staff with much joy.
Arguably it’s David Furner who will be feeling the pressure the most, given Canberra were touted as a top-eight side in pre-season discussions while Steve Price’s St George Illawarra unit, minus a couple of veterans and without a dedicated halfback, are pretty much delivering what many expected of them; ie, a struggle for continuity and in posting points.
If Canberra’s first-round loss to the Panthers – considered ladder bottom-dwellers before season kick-off – was surprising, their 36-point shut-out at the hands of the Titans last Sunday was simply shocking. The internal turmoil between those matches, which saw strike centre Blake Ferguson suspended and perennial problem Josh Dugan sacked, clearly has cut deep; it remains to be seen whether the wound will fester or heal over quickly.
Meanwhile the Dragons’ attacking woes that first manifested last season have continued with vigour into 2013. Despite high completions and low error rates in each of their two games to date (averaging 80 per cent of their sets and just eight mistakes per game, the fewest in the league!) the Dragons are nonetheless 0-2. In Round 1, premiers Melbourne smashed them by 20 points; then the Broncos stampeded over the top of them with a 22-6 victory in Wollongong last Friday – including a demoralising 16 unanswered points in the second 40.
This week they come up against their No.1 bogy team – St George Illawarra haven’t beaten the Raiders in the national capital since Sydney celebrated the 2000 Olympics! In that time they have suffered 13 defeats in head-to-head clashes, with a 58-16 thrashing in Wollongong in 2007 their only victory.
Running the eye over the team sheets, Canberra coach Furner has rushed back hooker Glen Buttriss into the starting side, with veteran Shaun Berrigan reverting to the interchange. Furner has also called up representative prop Brett White – a late withdrawal last week – to start in the front row, with Dane Tilse hitting the pine.
Dragons coach Price has tweaked his run-on side, with Michael Weyman slated to start at prop and Leeson Ah Mau hitting the interchange; also, Trent Merrin will start at lock with Bronson Harrison to come off the bench.
Watch Out Raiders: It’s likely the Dragons will try to create scoring opportunities from second-phase play; although they’ve struggled to post points the Dragons rank fourth in the NRL for offloads with 11 per game – while the Raiders are clearly struggling, with almost 13 offloads conceded in each of their games so far (second most).
St George Illawarra players most likely to inflict damage are Trent Merrin (six – second most by any player), Bronson Harrison and Jason Nightingale (four apiece). Merrin was a threat in the Dragons’ loss to the Raiders the last time they met, with three offloads and 18 hit-ups.
Canberra need to take some concrete pills in defence – last week they were paper thin across the ground, missing 26 tackles and conceding nine line-breaks as the Titans ran roughshod. Out wide Jarrod Croker and co-captain Josh McCrone missed three tackles each, while in tight new recruit Joel Edwards missed three.
Watch Out Dragons: New fullback Reece Robinson was one of the few Raiders players who could hold his head high after last week’s debacle at Skilled Park (zero missed tackles, 103 metres with four tackle busts) and up against a favourite opponent he’ll be keen to help get his side off the bottom of the ladder. The Dragons will still be having nightmares from their last meeting when Robinson sank them almost single-handedly with three blistering tries (including a heartbreaking match-winner with three minutes left on the clock), plus three line-breaks, five tackle-breaks and a demoralising 279 metres across Canberra Stadium.
Left-edge attack will be a priority for sides playing the Dragons this year – their right-fringe defence was a weakness in 2012 (conceding 36 tries compared to 26 on Matt Cooper’s edge) and already they have conceded seven. Expect centre Jarrod Croker, the Raiders’ most potent player in 2012 with 16 tries and 16 line-breaks, to try to conjure something.
Plays To Watch: Dane Tilse lifting against the Red V – he made 24 hit-ups for 164 metres the last time they played; Brett Morris scampering downfield – he covered more ground than any player in the NRL in 2012 and already he is averaging 152 metres a match; Josh Papalii (six tackle busts) testing out the Dragons in centre-field; Ben Creagh running off Nathan Fien, hitting the line hard and flat on the left edge.
Key Match-Up: The Raiders’ pack v Dragons’ pack. Canberra have to do better in the engine room or a 0-3 start to the season beckons. The Raiders are at the bottom of the heap for metres gained each week, averaging 1085 to date, with none of their pack managing triple-figure metre gains. In fact their leading forwards are Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and David Shillington with just 87.5 each.
Meanwhile the Dragons are averaging 1326 metres a week (ranked 10th) with their best contributors in the forwards being Trent Merrin (134 metres), Dan Hunt (113 metres) and Matt Prior (110 metres). Expect bigger input from Michael Weyman (just 43 metres) starting against his former team.
Where It Will Be Won: Scoring points. The Raiders rank rock bottom in 2013, averaging just five per game, while the Dragons are second from bottom with just eight points a match. Clearly whichever side strikes a vein of form with the ball in hand will go a long way towards securing the competition points.
It will fall to the halves to make that happen – unfortunately at the moment the respective combinations are sadly lacking in the creativity department. Raiders five-eighth Josh McCrone has a fair return, with two line-break assists and a try assist, but halfback Sam Williams has yet to chalk up any attacking stats. Ditto Dragons five-eighth Jamie Soward, who is yet to contribute a try assist, line-break assist, or line-break, while halfback Nathan Fien has chalked up just one try assist and one line-break assist. It’s time for someone to step up.
The History: Played 21; Raiders 14, Dragons 6, drawn 1. The Raiders have won the past seven games straight and hold a 10-2 advantage at Canberra Stadium – where the Dragons have not been successful since 2000.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Adam Gee; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Gavin Reynolds.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 6.30pm.
The Way We See It: We’re expecting Dragons hooker Mitch Rein to spark to life after uncharacteristically quiet games over the opening fortnight. If he can get the Dragons rolling forward early the Raiders may find it difficult to repel the Red V. We can see the ‘Canberra curse’ finally broken – and a smile returning to Steve Price’s face (well, short-term at least). St George Illawarra by six points, with both Dragons wingers to score tries.
*Statistics: NRL Stats